Syrian army controls capital after ousting IS

AFP , Monday 21 May 2018

File Photo: Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces are deployed at al-Qadam area near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 29, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

Syria's army on Monday was in complete control of the capital and its outskirts for the first time since 2012, after ousting the Islamic State (IS) militant group from a last pocket of resistance.

It marked a major milestone in the protracted war, which began in 2011 and saw parts of Damascus fall to armed rebels the following year.

But in recent months, President Bashar al-Assad has used a blend of military pressure and negotiated withdrawals to steadily flush rebels out of territory around Damascus.

A small IS holdout remained in the capital's south. Troops and allied Palestinian militia launched an offensive last month to recapture the area covering the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk and adjacent districts of Qadam, Tadamun and Hajar al-Aswad.

On Monday, the army declared it had ousted IS from that zone, sealing its control of the capital.

"The Syrian army announces today that Damascus, its outskirts and surrounding towns are completely secure," it said in a statement carried on official media.

"The wheel of our progress on the battlefield will not stop until all Syrian land is purified."

Weeks of fierce combat subsided at the weekend when a ceasefire allowed for group withdrawals, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"The evacuations are over, after 32 buses took 1,600 people including IS fighters and their relatives out of southern Damascus on Sunday and Monday," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

They were heading east towards Syria's Badiyah, the vast stretch of desert where IS still holds tiny slivers of territory.

After the final departure around midday on Monday, Syrian troops entered Yarmuk for combing operations, said the Britain-based monitor.

Yarmuk was the largest Palestinian camp in Syria and was put under crippling government siege in 2012 -- making it one of the longest besiegements of Syria's war.

Attacks by Syria's government, as well as rebel and jihadist infighting, have ravaged the district for years.

IS overran it in 2015, and the thriving 160,000-strong population dwindled further to just several hundred.

The evacuations from Yarmuk were shrouded in secrecy and took place under the cover of darkness with no media present.

The government has denied reaching a deal with IS, but did say a brief ceasefire had allowed one convoy of women and children to leave the pocket in southern Damascus overnight.

But one military source close to the regime said the deal had been reached through negotiations with the government and its ally Russia.

"They left in small batches at night," the source said. A monitor headed towards Syria's south, where an IS still holds some territory.

"The largest group went towards Syria's Badiya, because the Americans did not agree to let them enter pockets east of the Euphrates where the Syrian Democratic Forces are present," the source added.

The SDF has been waging its own offensive against IS for several years, ousting the jihadists from Syria's north and east with air support from the US-led coalition.

It is currently closing in on a string of IS-held villages east of the winding Euphrates river, near the border with Iraq.

The US-led coalition told AFP on Monday it was aware of the reported evacuations from Yarmuk and was "monitoring the situation".

Last year, IS fighters and relatives were evacuated from an area on the Lebanese-Syrian border under a deal between IS on one side, and Syria's regime and its powerful Lebanese ally Hezbollah on the other.

The deal enraged the US-led coalition, which sent airplanes to shadow the convoy and conducting bombing raids to block it from reaching IS-held territory. Those strikes killed several dozen IS fighters.

A resident of Yarmuk who was evacuated on Monday said IS fighters had tried to take precautions.

"The last group of fighters left on trucks, not on buses. They requested this out of fear the buses would be targeted," the resident said.

Before launching its anti-IS push in Yarmuk, Syria's government cleared out other rebels from the area with military drives and evacuation deals.

More than 1,000 Islamist fighters and civilians left Qadam in March for opposition territory in northern Syria.

The following month, Assad's forces began the assault specifically targeting IS.

Those operations have killed more than 250 pro-regime forces and 233 jihadists, as well as more than 60 civilians, according to the Observatory.

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